Ben Jonson – “Volpone” Act IV scene 1 (the end)

Sir Politic reveals to Peregrine that he has three surefire plans he can present to the Venetian authorities and he knows a certain commendatore who can help him gain the ear of these authorities. Now, though the title sounds grand, Peregrine knows he’s in fact just a sergeant and he says so, but Sir Pol says the common people can exercise as much influence as great ones. He looks for his notes in his pockets, without results, and Peregrine asks him to tell him his plans from memory. His first plan is to control all the tinderboxes, since they contain highly flammable materials and somebody entering the Arsenale (Venice’s military shipyard) with such a box on him could do a lot of damage. So Sir Pol’s plan is to restrict the ownership of such boxes only to the households of proven patriots and moreover, to make them so big they can’t be transported easily. I wonder if it’s some kind of allusion to the Gunpowder Plot and the anti-terrorist hysteria. I am sure it must be – Volpone was first produced on stage just a few months after the Plot. Returning to Sir Pol, his second plan is to save merchants’ money on quarantine. Normally all ships arriving from the Middle East were required to spend a month or more at the Lazzaretto, one of the outlying islands, to make sure nobody on their deck was ill with the plague. Taking into account that both the Black Death of the 14th century was believed to come to Europe via Venice, this seems like a sensible precaution. Anyway, since onions were believed to absorb the infected air, Sir Pol’s plan is to place a ship between two brick walls, one of them covered with onions and the other with a row of bellows powered by running water. By blowing the air from above the ship onto the onions and observing whether the onions change their colour or not, one will be able to tell whether anybody on the ship is infected. Sir Politic can’t remember the third plan and again rummages in his pockets. He hints darkly that if he sold this secret to Turks, Venice would be destroyed, notwithstanding its navy. Peregrine asks, pointing to the book in Politic’s hand, whether these are these precious notes, but Sir Politic answers that this is his diary, in which he notes everything he’s done every single day. Peregrine reads one sample entry, which is basically Politic’s version of “woke up, had a bath”, with the added flavour of “I peed at St Mark’s”.

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